Bowie students take to card Access provided for tuition, food, eventually Internet


BOWIE -- At Bowie State University, if you want to register for classes, use the card. Need a transcript of your grades? Use the card. Pay for a soft drink? Put through a wash? Take a book out vTC of the library? Call home for more money to put on the card? Use the card.

With the BowieCard, a new consumer service set up this fall on the historically black campus, Bowie's 5,000 students will soon be able to get by on campus almost entirely without cash.

While fairly new to Maryland, this kind of program has been gaining currency at campuses nationally in recent years. Several other public Maryland campuses have less ambitious versions, while the Johns Hopkins University and Loyola College also maintain multifunctional identification cards. Duke University and Florida State University have been doing it for a decade.

For cash-strapped campuses, it's a godsend. For the telephone and banking companies financing the programs, it's a way to get first crack at a major audience.

"It gets them fed, gets their books, gets their laundry. They're going to be able to buy [sports] tickets. If they lose it, it'll simply get replaced," said Judy Johnson, manager of the campus bookstore. "We're getting away from cash, that's for sure."

By this time next year, students will be able to use the card to get quick access to grades and hop onto the Internet as well. This occurs through a partnership with a division of MCI, the long-distance telephone company, whose involvement provides the campus with technology it might not otherwise be able to afford.

Despite initial stutters and failings in the system, the start of school took far less time than in years past, students and administrators said. Tamara Closs, the school's director of auxiliary services, has prepared for two years for the arrival of the BowieCard.

Until this year, students had to wait in one line to pay tuition. And in another to receive financial aid. And another to get a meal plan card. And another to get that card validated. Much of this will be done by telephone or computer within the year, campus officials said.

In the past, students used colored slips as campus dollars -- like Monopoly money, Ms. Johnson explained with a sigh -- that could be stolen or lost with no indication to whom they belonged.

"I had a lot of students saying they liked it a lot better," Erica T. Barnes, a junior from St. Mary's County who works in the student union game room, said of the brightly colored BowieCard. "They don't have to carry money in their pocket."

That's an appealing prospect for American college officials, who see a way to promote personal safety while shoring up finances.

The card, a 3-by-5-inch plastic rectangle that includes a photograph of the owner, has two magnetic bands of information on it.

The first allows students to maintain a limited cash balance, much like fare cards for the Washington Metro, enabling them to draw against a balance for specific uses such as vending machines or washers. Students can put a maximum of $50 in that account, limiting loss if the card is stolen or misplaced.

The second band allows access to information on a mainframe computer system. So, using a specially generated identification number as a password, students can tap into their grades at computer kiosks around campus. They can charge against an account, as they would with an automatic teller machine card. (Campus officials hope to strike a partnership with a regional bank to transform the BowieCard into an off-campus debit card as well.)

By taking advantage of Bowie State's involvement in the U.S. Education Department's direct lending program, financial aid students can now shift the balance of their federal loans onto their card within six days of paying tuition. That's three weeks sooner than they'd receive a check on the old system.

The computerized card also serves as a passport for dining halls and library accounts.

And it is also a long-distance calling card with MCI, which is how the project started. Like rival AT&T;, MCI has come calling on college campuses to pitch the idea of a partnership: The phone company would provide the hardware and the computer software to create a new campus-based system; in return, that phone company would have first crack at offering long-distance services to students -- at a rate that MCI officials say is lower than its discount "Family and Friends" program.

In addition, Bowie State will receive 34 percent of all proceeds from the phone bills. If only 20 percent of students use MCI -- and early indications suggest twice that many will -- Bowie would net about $50,000 from its own students.

MCI has promised to create access for students to the Internet -- a commonplace fact of life at many large campuses, but a thrilling prospect for a relatively cash-poor school like Bowie State.

The bookstore's Ms. Johnson attributes an increase in business of more than 10 percent over the same point in the young semester a year ago to the card. Her biggest problem, she said, is that she needs more than the four machines through which her staffers now swipe the magnetic stripe of the BowieCard.

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